Thoughts on the Internet’s Founding Myths
Whenever I put forth on the Internet’s numerous newsgroups, discussion fora and Websites a controversial view, an iconoclastic opinion, or a much-disputed thesis, the winning argument against my propositions starts with “everyone knows that …”. For a self-styled nonconformist medium, the Internet is the reification of herd mentality.
Actually, it is founded on the rather explicit belief in the implicit wisdom of the masses. This particularly pernicious strong version of egalitarianism postulates that veracity, accuracy, and truth are emergent phenomena, the inevitable and, therefore, guaranteed outcome of multiple interactions between users.
But the population of Internet users is not comprised of representative samples of experts in every discipline. Quite the contrary. The barriers to entry are so low that the Internet attracts those less gifted intellectually. It is a filter that lets in the stupid, the mentally ill, the charlatan and scammer, the very young, the bored, and the unqualified. It is far easier to publish a blog, for instance, than to write for the New York Times. Putting up a Website with all manner of spurious claims for knowledge or experience is easy compared to the peer review process that vets and culls scientific papers.
One can ever “contribute” to an online “encyclopedia”, the Wikipedia, without the slightest acquaintance the topic one is “editing”. Consequently, the other day, I discovered, to my utter shock, that Eichmann changed his name, posthumously, to Otto. It used to be Karl Adolf, at least until he was executed in 1962.
Granted, there are on the Internet isolated islands of academic merit, intellectually challenging and invigorating discourse, and true erudition or even scholarship. But they are mere islets in the tsunami of falsities, fatuity, and inanities that constitutes the bulk of User Generated Content (UGC).
Which leads me to the second myth: that access is progress.
Oceans of information are today at the fingertips of one and sundry. This is undisputed. The Internet is a vast storehouse of texts, images, audio recordings, and databases. But what matters is whether people make good use of this serendipitous cornucopia. A savage who finds himself amidst the collections of the Library of Congress is unlikely to benefit much.
Alas, most people today are cultural savages, Internet users the more so. They are lost among the dazzling riches that surround them. Rather than admit to their inferiority and accept their need to learn and improve, they claim “equal status”. It is a form of rampant pathological narcissism, a defense mechanism that is aimed to fend off the injury of admitting to one’s inadequacies and limitations.
Internet users have developed an ethos of anti-elitism. There are no experts, only opinions, There are no hard data, only poll results. Everyone is equally suited to contribute to any subject. Learning and scholarship are frowned on or even actively discouraged. The public’s taste has completely substituted for good taste. Yardsticks, classics, science – have all been discarded.
Study after study have demonstrated clearly the decline of functional literacy (the ability to read and understand labels, simple instructions, and very basic texts) even as literacy (in other words, repeated exposure to the alphabet) has increased dramatically all over the world.
In other words: most people know how to read but precious few understand what they are reading. Yet, even the most illiterate, bolstered by the Internet’s mob-rule, insist that their interpretation of the texts they do not comprehend is as potent and valid as anyone else’s.
When I was growing up in a slum in Israel, I devoutly believed that knowledge and education will set me free and catapult me from my miserable circumstances into a glamorous world of happy learning. But now, as an adult, I find myself in an alien universe where “culture” means merely sports and music, where science is decried as evil and feared by increasingly hostile and aggressive masses, and where irrationality in all its forms (religiosity, the occult, conspiracy theories) flourishes.
The few real scholars and intellectuals left are on the retreat, back into the ivory towers of a century ago. Increasingly, their place is taken by self-taught “experts”, narcissistic bloggers, wannabe “authors” and “auteurs”, and partisan promoters of (often self-beneficial) “causes”.
Dismal results ensue: fads like environmentalism and alternative “medicine” spread malignantly and seek to silence dissidents, sometimes by violent means; the fare served by the media now consists exclusively of soap operas and reality TV shows; Reading is on terminal decline; with few exceptions, the “new media” are a hodgepodge of sectarian view and fabricated “news”; the few credible sources of reliable information have long been drowned in a cacophony of fakes and phonies.
It is a sad mockery of the idea of progress. The more texts we make available online, the more research is published, the more books are written – the less educated people are, the more they rely on visuals and sounds rather than the written word, the more they seek to escape reality and be anesthetized rather than be challenged and provoked.
Even the ever-sliming minority who do wish to be enlightened are inundated by a suffocating and unmanageable avalanche of indiscriminate data, comprised of both real and pseudo-science. There is no way to tell the two apart, so a “democracy of knowledge” reins where everyone is equally qualified and everything goes and is equally merited. This relativism is dooming the twenty-first century to become the beginning of a new “Dark Age”, hopefully a mere interregnum between two periods of genuine enlightenment.